Fear and Loathing in a Small Town P.O.


Connie Sabo-Risley

Connie Sabo-Risley

As with many of us, I was a book reader first, then a book collector. Then I decided to enter the wonderful world of on-line bookselling, which seemed ideal for me: I could learn the trade in my spare hours after my full-time job, and selling via the Internet eliminated the overhead and the huge time commitment of operating a brick and mortar store.  And becoming a bookseller was wonderful in every way, but one.

No one had ever warned me that I would risk becoming Persona Non Grata at the local post office.

Now, I live in a small city of about 8,000 souls,  and Ive lived most of my life here. I know a lot of local people, and the P.O. is Gossip Central. So my first sales initially gave me more opportunity to stop by the P.O., mail a few boxes, and trade the local news.

But then came success.  Bookselling became a full-time job. And as the number of boxes to be mailed grew, and I became a regular hitch in  the local P.O.s normal get-along, I realized that Things Had Changed.   The clerks, who had in days of old hailed me with a wave and a “Hello!” and a beckoning to their windows, now allowed their eyes to sweep over me, not showing any signs of recognition, while doing quick mental calculations to determine just how fast or how slow they had to work to be able to wait on the customer in front of me, or behind me just not me, if they were lucky.

And even though the losing clerk would still manage a strained smile as I handed over my mound of boxes, and would process my mailings efficiently and as quickly as possible, I knew that I had to take some action or risk being treated like some unknown, strange, and transient customer at my home P.O.; Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to let you in.” Hed obviously never tried to mail 35 packages at one time at his home P.O.

So I had a Great Idea: I would spread my mailing largesse among a number of post offices located within smaller towns that were still within convenient driving range, say, ten minutes or less from my home.  By quick calculation, I came up with four or five possibilities, and decided that the various short drives would also add some variety to my daily work-at-home routine.

So I put my great plan into effect.

One Monday, I had about 30+ packages to mail, two priority and the rest media mail. I decided to drive to a very small town population about 500 which had a new post office built on their main state farm to market road.  I figured it wouldn’t be too busy. How could it? Only 500 people lived in the town, and most of them had to be at work or school. My idea seemed like a winner, so I loaded the car and off I went to mail.

When I walked in, I realized that while it looked roomy from the outside, the place was tiny, with just two service windows.  No one was at either in fact, no one was in the building anywhere I could see — but when I approached the counter a smiling young man quickly appeared and asked if he could help me. “I have a lot to mail,” I said, in an apologetic tone I had perfected since becoming a bookseller. “Great!” he said. “Lets get started!”

Encouraged, I gave him the first two packages and specified priority shipping. He put the first one on the scale, entered the ZIP, and printed out a label for $2.75 in postage. He attached that to the package, moved it to the side, and reached for the second. “These two are priority,” I said again. “Theyre in priority boxes.” He smiled and entered the ZIP for the second.

Now someone was in line behind me, waiting for service. No other clerk appeared. “Priority,” I said again. He looked at me, looked at the package, looked over the first package and said, “Oh. These are priority. I didn’t put enough postage on this one.” He picked up the first one. “I need to add some postage to this one,” he explained to me.

Now there were two people in line behind me, and not even one package was done. “75 cents,” I said. “You need to add 75 cents.”

He turned, picked up a calculator, and entered each digit accurately  and slowly. “Looks like 75 cents, ” he said. “Is that okay?”

“That’s fine,” I said.

He managed to get a $3.50 postal label on the second package. Now I was down to about 30 media mail packages, and I heard the bell on the door sound and sound again, as the line behind me swelled to four people.  “The rest of these go media mail” I said, pushing the first stack towards him.

“Media,” he said. “Media mail.”

“Yes, all media mail!” I said, now feeling slightly desperate and afraid to look behind me.

“Media mail,” he said again. “Yeah, we have that.” He began to pick up the packages, one — by one — by one, for each one typing in the ZIP code SLOWLY and precisely, announcing the media mail postage  —- “That’s $1.33. This one’s $1.33. This’ll be $1.33.” — and each time asking me, “Is that okay?”

“Okay,” I said. “All media mail. All okay. Whatever! Okay by me!” I smiled expansively, meaning to take in both him and the people in line behind me. “Hey! Media mail! Great rate! Works for me!”

Slowly he worked through the stack of packages. And I do mean slowly. When I next looked behind me, there were nine people waiting for service. Nine pairs of eyes looking at me. Nine people with, maybe, one letter to mail or one stamp to buy. Nine people who actually probably lived in that town. Who would ever think that nine out of 500 people wold decide to drop by the P.O. at the same time? What are the odds???

Finally, finally, finally.he put postage on the last package. I breathed a sigh of  relief, and heard nine more from behind me.

“Is that all?” he asked. “YES!” I said, a bit too enthusiastically. “Yep! That’ll do it! Here you go!” and handed him my American Express card.

He took it, and looked at it like he’d never seen one before. “Credit card,” he said, in a tone of wonder. Then he thought for a minute.  “Yes, we take these.”

He looked at the card, reading both sides like there were clues or something on them. Then he walked out of his window and other to the next, where the lone credit card machine was located. He looked at the machine and then started tapping something into the terminal. He began to read the screen.

Yes — he was reading the directions for accepting credit cards.

Now, folks who live in the country are pretty polite. But the folks behind me had become a curious blend of politeness, impatience, and wanting the clerk to learn this new skill, demonstrate it and MOVE ON.

So we all watched, ten souls rooting for the eleventh as he read directions, pushed buttons, read more directions, and put the card through the reader.

I was wondering how much longer this could possibly last, and I was painfully aware of the people in line behind me. It occurred to me that the people in line behind me must really, really hate me by now. I was nervous.

I began to giggle.

Actually, the first sound was more of a snort, followed by some hiccups and gurgles. The clerk looked at me and I smiled at him. The folks behind me, however, were not fooled.

The clerk returned to the task at hand. Then he read yet another few lines of instruction on the terminal screen, looked at the card, look very confused and looked at me. He seemed to need something. Suddenly it occurred to me he had no idea what my total was, and was trying to read the display in front of me.

“$42.98!” I said, far too brightly. “I owe you $42.98!”

“$42.98!” chimed in a ragged chorus of voices from behind me.

He said “Oh, okay!”, then walked back over to his window, looked at his screen, and said, “Yep! $42.98!” He walked back over to the other window and punched in the amount, then hit a button. For a few seconds nothing happened. Then the printout started coming. There wasn’t a burst of applause, but it was close. Me — I was fighting back more nervous giggles.

He came back to the window and handed me my card, which I put away in my purse. He handed me the receipt and I signed it. He took it, looked at it, and turned to read something on his terminal. “I think I need to see the card again,” he said. “I’m supposed to compare the signatures.”

Oh Lord! I dug into my purse and miraculously pulled the card out at first touch. He compared the signature on the card and the receipt letter by letter, then smiled and handed me back the card and my copy. I smiled too, in relief.

“Do you need your receipt?” he asked.

“Oh, yes,” I replied. “It has the ZIP codes on it. I like to keep those.”

“Okay,” he said, and turned to the machine which printed out the postage receipts. It was then I noticed that there was about 25 feet of paper coming out of it.

“That’s okay!” I said, but he replied, “No! It’s no problem! Really!” and diligently (beginning at the wrong end) began looking for where my info appeared.

At this point, I couldn’t hear anyone breathing behind me, but they were there. Oh yes! They were all still there. And me? I was still past the giggles, way past the giggles, and rounding the bend towards desperation.

Finally he handed me my receipt. “There you go! Anything else?”

“No! No thanks! That’s it!” I said. ” Thanks again! Thanks!” and avoiding the eyes of everyone in the room, lunged for the door and freedom.

Maybe in eight or ten years I can drive through that town again.  As for my mailing, I do it locally, at my hometown P.O. Weve gotten a system down, where I show up at roughly the same time every few days, and hand my items through a door, rather than standing in and confounding the line.  Now, when I go in for personal mailing needs, its like old times. All is forgiven… and its good to be back home.

Editors Note : Id love to have a humorous bookselling article, customer story, saying, pun, cartoon, or ??? for each issue of The Standard. We could all stand some laughs, and for sure our trade does have its funny side. If youve got anything youd like to submit, please send it to me at aaabooks@azalea.net . The only requirement is that it make me giggle!

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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